Virtual Reality Could Show New Food Inspectors What Slaughterhouses Really Look Like

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The Food Safety and Inspection Service's CTO thinks virtual reality could change training and recruitment.

Food inspectors could soon be trained using virtual reality, according to a senior tech official.

The Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service is developing virtual reality, augmented reality and 360-degree videos for training, education and recruitment, FSIS Chief Technology Officer Jim Tunnessen said during an ATARC event Thursday.

Virtual reality is a term for technology intended to transport the viewer, often wearing a headset, to a different, interactive environment. A related technology, 360-degree video immerses the viewer in surrounding camera footage.

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For new food inspectors visiting slaughterhouses or meat-packing plants, "you may not know exactly what you're getting yourself into when you're initially applying," he said. Depending on the specific role, agencies struggle with retention, he added, and inspectors visit thousands of locations across the country.

Broadly, virtual reality can be used to acclimate inspectors to the environments they'll spend time in, but also to train them on their specific tasks, Tunnessen said. He said his agency has used 360-degree recordings so "people can see how things actually operate."

Augmented reality could also help inspectors pool their expertise, Tunnessen said. Augmented realitysuch as that used in the Pokemon Go app—overlays the real world with virtual elements.

"You might be looking at one thing, I can see the same thing," he said. "We can use it to better understand what we can be looking for.”

Tunnessen spoke a couple weeks after a group of virtual reality proponents visited the Capitol, urging lawmakers to learn more about the technology so federal agencies can incorporate it into internal operations. Virtual reality could "get us to a point where our infrastructure for learning is not based on brick and mortar," Johan Uvin, the Education Department's acting assistant secretary for career, technical and adult education, said during that event.